31 December 2006

Not exactly a cause for mourning

Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti

1937-2006
Tyrant

Last month I talked about having mixed feelings about Saddam's death sentence, and now that it has happened I still feel the same. He was, undoubtedly, a monster. But I am not happy with our response to his monstrosity.

For a kangaroo court to hang Saddam is nothing to celebrate. As Majikthise says:

Giving Saddam Hussein an unfair trial is the equivalent of the cops planting evidence at the OJ crime scene. If you need to cheat to get a conviction against someone who committed as many crimes as Saddam, there's something very wrong with your justice system.
Spencer Ackerman sums up two causes for dissatisfaction even if you aren't troubled by the state having the power of life and death over the accused.
The more academic question is whether the process that has led to the end of Saddam can be considered a just one. And the answer is, tragically, no
....
Then is the question of whether the end of Saddam Hussein can lead to the birth of a better, more decent Iraq, and here the answer, as well, is no.
Matthew Yglasias also points to the context of the trial.
Saddam was charged with the wrong crime. When you think “Saddam Hussein and crimes against humanity” your thoughts naturally turn to Halabja/Anfal. Prosecuting that case, however, raised awkward questions about Don Rumsfeld's meet-and-greet with Saddam Hussein
...
The purpose of said visit, as people might recall were the American press not to have its head in the sand, was largely to reassure Saddam that the Reagan administration's public condemnation of Iraqi chemical weapons use against the Iranian military and Kurdish insurgents was not something Baghdad should take especially seriously. The State Department would condemn, but special envoy Rumsfeld was around to cut deals.
Joshua Michah Marshall ties the execution to the whole madness of the US effort in Iraq, and Jane Hamsher mourns, but not for Saddam.

Update: Aha. Ezra Klein says exactly what I couldn't find the words for.

In the end, Saddam's execution only underscores our plight. By the time his neck snapped and his feet swung, Saddam was but a diminished eccentric. His death, once supposed to be the final, glorious denouement of the war, is just a discomfiting reminder that we know only how to destroy, not rebuild. Saddam is dead. Zarqawi is dead. There is no one left to kill or capture who will end this nightmare. In the end, they were just more bodies, tossed atop the pyre in Iraq, where so many others have burned, and where the flames show no sign of extinguishing.

29 December 2006

Categories

Before he became beloved of lefty bloggers like me for talking about the metaphorical dimension of American political rhetoric and thinking, George Lakoff was one of the most prominent cognitive linguists in the biz, well-known among the folks who know about cognative linguistics as The Metaphor Guy who wrote Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. It's a chewy and fascinating book.

I recently thought of Lakoff when I discovered that the Marvel Database Wiki helpfully organizes Marvel Comics characters into types:

  • Aliens
  • Animals
  • Clones
  • Cosmic Beings
  • Cyborgs
  • Deities
  • Demons
  • Mutants
  • Robots
  • Time Travelers
  • Vampires
I note that Spider-Man, a true original, fits into none of these categories.

The Marvel list is, however, only my third-most-favourite list of categories in the world. The second is the three major divisions at Del Monte canned goods.

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Tomatoes
Most satisfyingly, I learned about this by talking to a woman who, it turns out, was the executive assistant to the Vice President of Tomatoes.

My mostest favouritest is, of course, from Jorge Luis Borges' story “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” which describes the Chinese encyclopædia Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge offering the following types of animals.

  1. those that belong to the Emperor,
  2. embalmed ones,
  3. those that are trained,
  4. suckling pigs,
  5. mermaids,
  6. fabulous ones,
  7. stray dogs,
  8. those included in the present classification,
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
  10. innumerable ones,
  11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
  12. others,
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
  14. those that from a long way off look like flies.
A number of bloggers organize their blogrolls into these categories. Mmmm.

28 December 2006

Chaucer

Via Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light, I learn that not only does Geoffrey Chaucer have a blog, he's doing stuff like reviewing Battlestar Ecclesiastica.
In this boke of science ficcion, a man ycleped Wycliffe is the bishop of the gret chirche of Seynt Paules, the which is lyk vnto a mighty shippe and kan moue thurgh the voyde of the planetes. Al othir chirches on the earth haue ben destroyed by the deuil and his feendes, who haue taken on the visages of men and look exactlie lyk friares. Ther is a mighti ladye of feyth called Margery Starbaxter, who ys a loyal warryour for the chirche and sleyeth the friares. And eek ther ys a traytour named Belshazzar who doth see visions of a sexie friar yn his heed who telleth hym to betraye the goode folke of Seynt Paules. Sum oon nedeth to jump on this sucker and turne hit in to a series of television.
There's also song lyrics ...
Maketh motor for to runne
Shoopen vs to to heigh-waye
... and the Middle English chorus is very good.

27 December 2006

Hack

Via Makeda 55, I learn about a funny email exchange between a civilian and a tech guy.
OK here it is: I need an adjustment to my college GPA. Is this an absurd request?
Absurd no, difficult yes. Really depends on the college, security in place, the amount of databases required to truly update, log servers to compromise to remove evidence, type of access required to access the systems (internet? LAN? dialup? carrier pigeon?), and a dozen other things that come into play.
The tech guy starts pulling the civilian's leg.
First, let's be clear. You are soliciting me to break the law and hack into a computer across state lines. That is a federal offense and multiple felonies. Obviously I can't trust anyone and everyone that mails such a request, you might be an FBI agent, right?

So, I need three things to make this happen:

1. A picture of a squirrel or pigeon on your campus. One close-up, one with background that shows buildings, a sign, or something to indicate you are standing on the campus.

2. The information I mentioned so I can find the records once I get into the database.

3. Some idea of what I get for all my trouble.

A squirrel. Or a pigeon. Okay.

Things get a little out of hand, eventually. And there's even a bit of a political dimension.

26 December 2006

Wusscore

R. Eirik Ott, a.k.a. slam poet Big Poppa E, offers us a Wussy Boy Manifesto.
I saw him, there on the silver screen, bigger than life and unafraid of earrings and hair dye, and rejoicing in the music of the Cure, Morrissey and Siouxsie and the Banshees, talking loud and walking proud, my Wussy Boy icon: Ducky in Pretty in Pink.
You can hear him preach it, if that speaks to you.

I find that it gives a whole new dimension to the ending of 8 Mile.

25 December 2006

Godfather

James Brown
1933-2006
Godfather of Soul

Some years ago, sitting around drinking with some friends, we talked about what superpower we would wish for if we were offered one—just one—by a djinni. There was the ususal debate between flying and invisibility. I went for the gift of tongues. But a friend of mine came up with the real right answer.

“I want to be able to dance like James Brown.”

CNN offers a decent summa of the basics from the AP wire plus a few video clips. And I have Content Love Knowles describing going to a recent show of his.

His consummate skill as a showman has never served him better than now. Because he's always styled his act this way, distancing and elevating himself and his bandmates, keeping it specific, it doesn't feel all weird and mannered now, the way that, say, seeing the Rolling Stones might (can't say, haven't seen 'em live in 30 years, no, make that 25. And I'm not too interested, either). Lots of acts, when they get older, IF they're still doing music from their heyday rather than new stuff, end up seeming like tributes to their former selves. Somehow, James Brown manages to avoid that. Maybe it's the soul thing. I think it is.

Having seen Chuck Berry perform a similar miracle, I'd go with the soul thing, too.

Too bad he died in a hospital. Had it happened on stage, I honestly think he might have resurrected himself through sheer force of will.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men

You may have heard the legend of the 1914 Christmas Truce in the trenches of the First World War.

The legend is not only true, it's factual. It didn't happen everywhere, but along much of the line soldiers spontaneously stopped fighting, sang carols together, and crossed the no mans' land to talk and joke and even exchange gifts and drinks. You might call it Christmas Truces, as it broke out locally in several differnt places.

A BBC article quotes a British soldier.

Just you think, that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before! It was astounding!
Astounding indeed. Depending upon your temperament, you might find your amazement in the killing, the handshaking, or the combination of the two. Is this a heartwarming story or a heartbreaking story? Or both?

You can find quotes from contemporary accounts all over the web, and Operation Plum Puddings is trying to collect the text of all extant soldier's letters about the Truce.

It didn't last, of course. One page with an impressive collection of Truce anecdotes quotes Captain J C Dunn describing the Truce's conclusion where he was.

At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with “Thank you” on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.
The following years, the Truce was not repeated, if for no other reason that the top brass on both sides ordered heavy bombardments of the enemy positions on Christmas Eve each year thereafter. Take from this what lesson you will.

Merry Christmas.

24 December 2006

Christmas Eve

Don't ask me why this of all things is the thing that sticks, but for me Christmas isn't Christmas until I've seen Bowie sing a duet with Bing.

For those of you who like your Xmas whimsey more subversive still, I offer you another video.

23 December 2006

In the beginning

Via Warren Ellis, I learn about this picture of the cosmic background radiation, said by the scientists who generated it to represent the universe about 300 million years after the Big Bang.

If you're thinking to yourself hey, that looks like a lot of big, chunky structure—what's up with that? then you're not alone. It's a big mystery.

“Whatever these objects are,” said Alexander Kashlinsky, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, “they are intrinsically incredibly bright and very different from anything in existence today.”
....
Professor Norris conceded astronomers could not explain how such big objects formed so quickly after the Big Bang.
I feel like if I squint, I ought to be able to make out the face of Galactus, but I'm just not seeing it.

22 December 2006

Meme

Okay, normally I resist this stuff, but I see that big name serious politics bloggers like Ezra Klien aren't above a little memeage, so okay, count me in.

First, my own mother hits me with the Nearest Book Meme.

  1. Grab the book closest to you.
  2. Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence
  3. Post the text of next 3 sentences on your blog
  4. Name of the book and the author
  5. Tag three people
I'm cheating and stealing a little work time for that one. Reaching over my desk, I find Colin Ware's amazing book Information Visualization: Perception for Design (2nd ed).
Often, color selection palettes are laid out in a regular order according to one of the color geometries defined previously. It is useful to provide a facility for the user to develop a perosnal palette. This allows for oconsistency in color style across a number of visualization displays.
Consider yourself tagged if you've always wanted to do this meme, but just haven't had someone hit you with it. I should have at least three readers who qualify.

Second, Cynsimone offers twenty random facts about herself, and demands that I do the same. Twenty is a lot, so those are going behind a cut ...

  1. I have a scar on my arm from a bumper cars accident.
  2. When I was studying piano as a child, I was discovered to have perfect pitch because I insisted that I could not play an unfamiliar piano because it was out of tune.
  3. However, I now cannot play the piano or any other musical instrument.
  4. I have a superstition about my birthday, and never plan birthday activities in advance.
  5. As a result, I celebrated my 31st birthday on the roof of an abandoned hospital.
  6. At one job, I managed to win a recruiting bounty for hiring both my brother and my best friend.
  7. As a child, I wrote a letter to Richard Scarry suggesting an idea for a book he should write. He wrote back telling me that he was retired, so I would have to write the book myself.
  8. I once confronted a cult leader in front of a few hundred of his screaming followers, resulting in a few would-be disciples seeking me out immediately afterward.
  9. As a result of a summer job wearing a funny costume, there are probably more different photographs of me in the possession of people who don't know me than in the hands of people who do.
  10. I once chaperoned teenagers on a tour of Europe.
  11. I once ran into a friend from San Francisco, completely at random, on a streetcar in Amsterdam.
  12. When I was a college freshman, many people assumed I was a junior or senior because I arrived having already let my hair grow long.
  13. I wear a necktie almost every day.
  14. I can speak extemporaneously in iambic pentameter.
  15. I wrote short stories as a teenager, but gave up on them because I discovered that I just don't have an ear for dialogue.
  16. At my first job out of college, I had a microfiche reader on my desk.
  17. I don't get seasick.
  18. When I mention the poet Edna St. Vincent Millet, I reflexively rap the table twice because my high school English teacher insisted that his class do this because it made her name more metrically correct.
  19. My motorcycle is named after Lauren Bacall, and I call her “Betty” after Ms Bacall's real name.
  20. I live across the street from my retired father; I say “it's like a sitcom.”
In deference to a tradition with this meme, one and only one of those “facts” is a lie.

21 December 2006

Solstice

I hope that my longtime readers will forgive me recycling last year's poetic scientistic meditation on the rim of the year.

There are four forces in the universe. Gravity bends the universe into its shape from end to end, attracts and never repels, but is by far the weakest of these forces. Electricity and magnetism, one and the same in the eye of the divine—attracting, repelling, and turning—is the second weakest force, far stronger than gravitation. This second force accounts for almost everything we know: the strength of stone, the flow of water, the kiss of wind, the source of fire's energy. Even light itself is a ripple in it.

In the heart of the Sun, the press of the Sun's enormous weight makes a world unlike anything we can touch. In the heart of the Sun, the hydrogen and helium we know as wisps lighter than air are a dozen times the density of lead—pressed until they are no longer gasses, nor even anything like the liquids or solids we know, but a plasma like a soupy flame.

In the heart of the Sun, there are not atoms but the hearts of atoms, nuclei rattling among the electrons which would cloak them on Earth, shoulder to shoulder but not bound together. The second weakest force in the universe tries to drive the nuclei apart from one another, while the weakest force presses them together, and the heat whirls them in a mad dance. In this unearthy mælstrom those nuclei collide. And then another force takes hold, one with far greater strength and far lesser reach then its two familiar sibilings, and it grafts the nuclei together.

A fire is powered by the release of energy bound in knots of the twins electricity-magnetism. So is your flesh. But the Sun is powered by the release of energy bound up in that far stronger force which circumscribes the nuclei. The strength of the hearts of atoms warms the heart of our Sun, and so warms us. When nuclei cleave together, energy escapes as a ripple of light. Thus the inconceivably thick plasma deep in the Sun is awash in light, which bounces and spins through it, so bright that it is no mere illumination but actually part of the substance and texture of that hidden world.

It takes time for a ray of light to wander to the Sun's surface, where it can finally live its destiny to soar unobstructed through the vacuum of space—and perhaps to come to rest on the world we know. The light you see today was born before anything human walked. It has been a long time coming.

Remember the Sun's gifts today.

20 December 2006

Sagan

Wil Wheaton informs me that I almost missed the Carl Sagan memorial blog-o-thon today.

I don't have time to write a proper appreciation for Sagan, but fortunately John Scalzi at Whatever has already said what I would have said, only better.

When I was eleven, I thought Carl Sagan was the coolest guy in the world.
....
This is important stuff. Getting science in front of people in a way they can understand—without speaking down to them—is the way to get people to support science, and to understand that science is neither beyond their comprehension nor hostile to their beliefs. There need to be scientists and popularizers of good science who are of good will, who have patience and humor, and who are willing to sit with those who are skeptical or unknowing of science and show how science is already speaking their language. Sagan knew how to do this; he was uncommonly good at it.
I also cannot resist sharing with you this quote from Sagan's book about the brain and human evolution, The Dragons of Eden.
The sun is so bright that the stars are invisible, despite the fact that they are just as present in our sky in the daytime as at night. When the sun sets, we are able to perceive the stars. In the same way, the brilliance of our most recent evolutionary accretion, the verbal abilities of the left hemisphere, obscures our awareness of the functions of the intuitive right hemisphere, which in our ancestors must have been the principal means of perceiving the world.
I just cut-and-pasted this quote from a page on Sagan at Very Important Potheads ... because of the punchline in a footnote to this passage:
Marijuana is often described as improving our appreciation of and abilities in music, dance, art, pattern and sign recognition and our sensitivity to nonverbal communication. To the best of my knowledge, it is never reported as improving our ability to read and comprehend Ludwig Wittgenstein or Immanuel Kant; to calculate the stresses on bridges; or to compute Laplace transformations. Often the subject has difficulty even in writing down his thoughts coherently. I wonder if, rather than enhancing anything, the cannabinols (the active ingredients in marijuana) simply suppress the left hemisphere and permit the stars to come out. This may also be the objective of the meditative states of many Oriental religions.
A very smart pothead friend of mine was fond of this comment, and there is something delightful about it.

Mind you, publishing this quote should not be taken as this blog encouraging young people to study astronomy while stoned.

19 December 2006

Iraq Study Group

Lindsey Beyerstein of Majikthise offers quick critique of the Iraq Study Group's report.
Spencer Ackerman has an excellent analysis of the sober wishywashiness of the Iraq Study Group:
The trouble is that the Iraq Study Group is ultimately providing false hope for an extended war. Its assessment is appropriately bleak. For example, “Key Shia and Kurdish leaders,” the commission finds, “have little commitment to national reconciliation.” Now, given that these leaders comprise the Iraqi government, one might think that would lead to the conclusion that Iraq is doomed to an intensifying sectarian conflict, and unless one believes it is in the United States' interest to pick a side in someone else's civil war, that means it's time to go home. Instead, the commission, despite its own better judgment in its report, is gearing up for what Hamilton called “one last chance at making Iraq work.” It's hard to see what's responsible about this.
Essentially, the ISG recommends that the US continue the same strategy that we've been pursuing since the beginning of the occupation: Training Iraqi security forces. The report issues the seemingly bold suggestion that by 2008, Iraqi troops should replace US combat troops, and that US troops should shift to providing force protection for Americans training Iraqis. In other words this blue ribbon commission is demanding that our failed strategy start working better, and fast.
Still, I have to respect that the first sentence of the report reads:
The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.
Although what does it say about American discourse about Iraq that this simple, frank admission of fact is exciting?

18 December 2006

Caitlin Flanagan

Shataina over at Dragon Lady Flame has been reading David Brooks, and apparently doesn't know to look for the hidden knife when reading him. It seems that Brooks is impressed that anti-feminist upper class mommy—and sometime highbrow magazine writer—Caitlin Flanagan is so very, very concerned about “how nice girls got so casual about oral sex.”

Ahem.

That little quote is the subtitle of her essay “Are You There God? It's Me, Monica,” running in The Atlantic Monthly, the magazine for bookish American liberals that isn't Harper's. (Yeah, I read both, like you couldn't guess.) I didn't happen to read the article at the time, but now we all can because The Atlantic is publishing it free on the web For A Limited Time Only thanks to Mr Brooks.

You can see the magic of Ms Flanagan's writing right there in that crafty, crafty, crafty title and subtitle. She is, undoubtedly, a very talented writer. Dig how much she does in just sixteen words. A prim retro-'50s sensibility of good and bad girls, hipness to contemporary pop culture, and a wink to it all being (of course!) Bill Clinton's fault ... and by proxy, how the left in general is corrupting our civilization with sex, sex, sex.

Shaitana puts her finger right on the core deception of Ms Flanagan's essay—and of all her work. Yeah, there's some unwholesome stuff going on around sex and gender in America. But Shaitana tells us, quite rightly, that a lot of our sexual culture is much more affirming of women's needs than Ms Flanagan seems to think, and both the good and the bad are part of the case for feminism ... not, as Ms Flanagan tries to tell us, the case against it.

Whatever she claims, Flanagan isn't really concerned with finding girls a sexually healthy, happy attitude. She's scared of the changes to our sexual culture, terrified “that we are raising children in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape”.

Ms Flanagan isn't alone in worrying about this, mind you. Rush Limbaugh is likewise concerned about oral sex, and Mr Limbaugh and Ms Flanagan are hardly surprising bedfellows—if you'll forgive the disturbing image—because, as Amanda Marcotte at Padagon reminds us, the vast right wing conspiracy is engaged in a War on Fucking. We might chuckle, but as I've argued before, it's actually serious business.

Now it turns out that I didn't read the Atlantic essay, in large part because I learned my lesson about Ms Flanagan a while back, when her book was getting a lot of play in the media and Left Blogistan. I got most of the way through a post about her then, but it sat unfinished in my drafts folder.

I had just recently done a post about the irony gap between Red and Blue America, and then found Shakespeare's Sister asking:

What terrifyingly airless irony-free zone are these women coming from?

She was talking about Ms Flanagan, who had just published her book To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. Ms Flanagan was fond of observing that the publisher nixed her original intended subtitle, “How Feminism Shortchanged a Generation.”

Soror Shakespeare asked her question because, whaddaya know, she saw a conflict between a woman making a handsome living writing articles and a book (under her own name, no less) and an opposition to the feminism that made it possible for her to be taken seriously as a writer and thinker in the first place.

I suspect Ms Flanagan of a more serious irony impairment than even that.

My hero Stephen Colbert did an interview with her on The Colbert Report which truly defies belief. That links to Salon's Video Dog, so you'll have to watch an advertisement first, but it's worth it.

Many of my readers are TV-free, so let me offer a reminder that The Colbert Report is a parody of a conservative cable news magazine show, and host Stephen Colbert portrays a parody of a smug know-nothing conservative pseudojournalist. But even if you didn't know that, I probably wouldn't need to tell you because anyone who would read my blog is familiar, dare I say intimate, with the concept of irony, and thus will spot Colbert's game in a moment.

Ms Flanagan's manufacturers at the Stepford Cybernetics Works, however, seem to be unable to program this concept into her. It appears to simply not register on her that Colbert is mocking her with irony. As Jennifer Pozner at WIMN's Voices describes, with amazement:

No matter what ridiculously derogatory, sexist statement Colbert threw at her as part of his “I’m more pompous and nonsensical than thou” shtick, Flanagan just nodded her head, smiled in that vacant, eerie Stepford way of hers, and agreed, countering with an even more ridiculous comment... that she fully believed.

Maybe she's mocking him back with an extra level of non-ironic irony, pretending not to see what's going on? It doesn't look that way to me. But you be the judge.

I found the video via Bitch, Pd.D., who slips in a snarky, irresistable, disconcerting observation. And that led me to a spate of Flanagan debunking on the web. I recommend a visit to Echidne of the Snakes who gets right at the heart of Flanagan's hypocracy, Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, and Money and Zuzu at Feministe who demolish Ms Flanagan's “I didn't leave the Democrats, they left me” rap, or Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon who manages to drop in a few wry references to Cyndi Lauper and Zelda Fitzgerald while excoriating Ms Flanagan. I know I'm linking a lot, today, but all of them are worth the time.

Update: Dragon Lady Flame revisits the question, realize that she misunderstood Ms Flanagan at first—and this misunderstanding reflects, in fact, a victory for feminism.

Flanagan is mostly concerned with the fact that girls who give unrequited blowjobs are not being “protected” in return—they don't get relationships out of the deal. It blew my mind that I didn't see that little cultural angle to what she wrote, and it also, oddly, cheered me up. Because sure, it's unfortunate that some girls aren't getting their oral sex returned—but the fact that they aren't necessarily getting a relationship out of it is also an indicator that women are no longer culturally expected to trade sex for that “protection”!

17 December 2006

Commodify your consciousness

Via Christopher Locke at Mystic Bourgeoise—who posts an image of an amazing advertisement for one of these things—I bring you the enlightenment card.

Is it a new addition to the major arcana of the tarot? A handy credential showing that you've crossed the Abyss?

Nope. It's a credit card.

The Enlightenment Card was founded on the idea that money is energy and if used with positive and integrative intention, can have the power to affect change in our lives and the world. Everyone uses a credit card, so why not have one where people can earn points towards positive products and services that enhances their overall “conscious” life path? Some of the categories of rewards you can earn points toward are yoga classes and merchandise, organic products, retreats + workshops, exotic travels, books + DVD’s, personal care, spa treatments, and more.
Available with your choice of groovy images like an Om, the Buddha, or ... my favourite ... crepuscular rays.

Mind you, I'm a Freak citizen with no small interest in woo-woo stuff. But this just gives me the big creepy.

Is it the cognative dissonance? The smug egocentrism? The shopping-cart syncreticism?

It makes me want to go get a credit card tomorrow with a symbol of the other Enlightenment on it, the one that's actually philosophically aligned with credit cards. Can you get a credit card with a picture of John Locke or Isaac Newton on it, I wonder? I do know that you can get the Enlightenment's commodified pop culture cartoon symbol, the starship Enterprise.

16 December 2006

Spam

Two recent bits of spam have amused me.

One had the subject line:

Like an online dating site, except for orphaned socks
I have to admit, it seduced me into reading the content of the mail. Didn't get me to send any money to Nigeria, though.

The second had this bit of spam-filter-fooling text:

VMware and IBM virtualization experts will present timely strategies on virtualizing desktop environments from the data center. The herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese add a profusion of flavor to not only.
Somehow, the combination of virtual reality and sun-dried tomatoes seems very funny to me.

15 December 2006

Homework

First, Philip Agre's essay What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?
Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves “conservatives” have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.

Second, on the subject of our nation's news media, Teresa Nielsen Hayden's essay Why I Blog, an essay in five parts which argues that the news media are not “liberal.” They are conservative, by Mr Agre's definition.
  1. In which Jonathan Schwarz of A Tiny Revolution explains that the news media have sided with the privileged elite, a class to which you almost certainly don’t belong
  2. In which, in an unguarded moment, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com explains what was really going on over the last twelve years.
  3. In which CNN demonstrates its loyalty to the dark side of the force
  4. In which we discover yet again that deceiving us has become an industrial process
  5. In which I bid farewell to some of the related issues I left out of this post, and explain why I write about politics and current events
In that last part, she provides the answer to the implicit question of her post's title.
I can’t fill in for the deficiencies of the New York Times or the Washington Post or CBS and CNN. I can’t singlehandedly beat back the tide of corporate astroturf and all the constantly proliferating varieties of spam. Fortunately, I’m not alone. If the vast field of political weblogging has sprung up seemingly out of nowhere during the last few years, it’s because the underperforming professional journalists are leaving us with so much material to work with.
I'm deliberately posting this on a Friday so that you'll be more likely, during the weekend, to take the time to click through and read these two things. Yes, they're long, but they're important. I just cannot recommend highly enough that you go to each one and read the whole thing.

14 December 2006

Stonehenge

Stonehenge is now well known to be an astronomical calculator, but it still has many mysteries.
How the four-ton bluestones were brought to Salisbury Plain from the Preseli hills of south Wales has been answered by engineers, but nobody has found out why.

Why go to the colossal expense of such transportation, when Stonehenge's sandstone monoliths were dragged from down the road at Marlborough? What was so special about the bluestones?

Simon Jenkins at the UK Guardian reports on a new theory that, as Warren Ellis says, “Stonehenge was a hospital.”

Hail Eris

I saw a movie trailer the other day, and I was gonna try and come up with something clever and elaborate to say about it. But really it's better to just quote LVX23 at Key23.net saying, “Hollywood is stealing my thoughts.”

I remember having that feeling myself when I saw the trailer for π.

13 December 2006

Victory in Iraq

I'm just gonna give you this whole post from J. Bradford DeLong.
Nothing Can Match Fafblog
But Alter Ego comes very close:
My Alter Ego Speaks: S = r * t: In his joint press conference with Tony Blair yesterday, President Bush was asked whether he was capable of admitting his past failures with regard to the Iraq war. In response he stated “I do know that we have not succeeded as fast as we wanted to succeed,” and went on to say “I thought we would succeed quicker than we did, and I am disappointed by the pace of success.”

Brilliant! Sheer genius! I tip my hat to the master of rhetoric behind these words! By applying this approach to my problems and those of the people in my life, I am able to see the world in a much more positive light. For example:

  • I am disappointed by the pace at which I am winning the powerball lottery.
  • [Censored: this is a family weblog.]
  • My nephew who dropped out of high school and is now dealing crystal meth? We are all disappointed by the rate at which he is finishing his doctoral dissertation.
  • My plan to grow wings and antlers is slightly behind schedule.
There now, I feel better already!
My plan to grow a prehensile tail is much more sound than his plan to grow wings and antlers. But it too is slightly behind schedule.
Remember, President Bush isn't just bringing us success in Iraq. He's bringing us success in Iraq and a pony!

12 December 2006

Fahrenheit

A friend of mine was recently confused about how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius temperature, which led to a discussion of the Fahrenheit scale, which is, after all, pretty strange. This led to my friend asking how such a wacky system come to be in the first place, anyway.

Now once upon a time, I was told that the scale had something to do with the melting point of butter, which I think is meant to be 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But then what determines 0 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to the awkward 32 and 212 degrees for water freezing and boiling? I have no answer.

Well, according to Wikipedia, nobody really knows where the scale comes from! There are a number of theories. Here's one unlikely but charming explanation:

[A] not so well-known version of the origin of the Fahrenheit scale depends on Fahrenheit himself being a Freemason (of which there is no definitive evidence). In Freemasonry, there are 32 degrees of enlightenment, 32 being the highest. The use of the “degree” as well is said to have been derived from the degrees of masonry. This may well be coincidence, but there is no conclusive evidence to the contrary, so the thought persists.
Wow! The Freemasons really do control everything!

11 December 2006

Arabic for Vietnam

I've talked before about how the myth of the Vietnam War colours the way folks talk about the Iraq War. That the stay-the-course talk on the American right reflects their story of Vietnam.
Vietnam was a failure of American will—had we really tried hard enough of course we would have “won.” But the meddling politicians, under pressure from the cowards in the antiwar movement, dishonorably stayed our military's hand.
I see that Digby, reading Bob Woodward's State of Denial, takes that reasoning a step further.
Yes, we know it was about oil and it was about Israel and it was about PNAC wet dreams and seven thousand other things. But I'm talking about the Big Reason, the one that united all these people: Iraq is their long awaited chance to do Vietnam right.
Digby's post is long but well worth reading in its entirety, further fleshing out the consequences of the right's mythology of Vietnam, and talking chillingly about some of he White House infighting that got us into Iraq.

10 December 2006

Advice

I don't know which is funnier. That someone has written an imaginary advice column by Hannah Arendt? Or that Camille Paglia actually did a real one?

09 December 2006

Spam

Nicholas Carr at Rough Type says there are three things you can be sure of in life: death, taxes, and spam.
It's all about zero costs and unlimited scale. Given enough eyeballs, no scam is too shallow. If you want a lesson in the new economics of abundance, there's no better place to look than at the business of spam.
The more I think about spam, the more I come to fear that Carr is right that it will always be with us.

08 December 2006

Sonnet

Okay, it's not the best poem I've ever read, but it's the best Doctor Who poem I've ever read, even if the final couplet is a bit weak.

Shall I compare thee to a pepper-pot,
For thou, my emperor, are thus shaped.
The superior race bow as they ought,
For you, my Lord, we cry “Exterminate!”

The Dalek Empire shall always expand,
The humans will die, the time lords will fall
Oh Lord, the Cybermen’s hides shall be tanned
And you, my Lord, shall rein supreme o'er all.

My emperor, the stairs we have conquered,
Our death rays reduce enemies to globs,
“Exterminate” is our favorite word.
We Daleks are the superior blobs*.

Daleks hail the Pepperpot Potentate
The Doc hasn’t been destroyed to this date.

Today's quote

James Wimberley posting at Mark A R Klieman's The Reality-Based Community on the recent Stern Report on global warming from the British Treasury.
Climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest example of market failure we have ever seen.
Of course, good economists always study market failure.

07 December 2006

Mars

Not once upon a time. Not maybe. Not frozen.

Now. Definitely. Liquid.

Water on Mars.

Evidence has been found that liquid water is flowing on Mars, NASA scientists announced today. The unexpected find emerged from some 240,000 images taken by the long-orbiting Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. Images taken of the same areas over time showed investigators that liquid water likely flowed through gullies in Martian craters during the past seven years. Telltale deposits of debris suggest that sediments were washed downhill by occasional liquid flows.
I know it's practically impossible to send people out to look. But there is still work to do here. We were given eyes, brains, and hands for a reason. Let's get with it.

Brain and brain

Via Makeda55, I learn that you can get an elegant sculpture of the ventricles of the brain. Almost as cool as biochemistry jewelry.

Very obscure joke

Like philosophy and roleplaying games? How about a rousing afternoon of Dungeons & Discourse?

06 December 2006

Tough dame

Very petite noir writer Christa Faust reports on taking a martial arts class as preparation for her next novel.
I suffered the sublime indignity of having my ass handed to me by a ten year old boy. My usual female partner wasn’t there and this kid was the only one in the room within 50 pounds of my weight class. I started off paired up with a guy a foot taller and 110 pounds heavier than me. That was comedy in action. His arm was the length of my leg. I would have had to go get my car and run over his wrist to get him to notice me. I guess the instructor felt sorry for me so he set me up with Josh Barnett Jr, the baby babyfaced assassin. The kid’s dad was in my class and he was just killing time till dad was done. I have no idea how this deadly little blond moppet felt about rolling around on the mat with a grown woman but he seemed to be a good sport about the whole thing. I, on the other hand, was supremely uncomfortable, since kids make me really nervous under the best of circumstances. I think that qualifies as one of the strangest things I’ve ever done while researching a book.
Mind you, Phyllis Dietrichson didn't need martial arts, either.

OJ

From Cobb:
The Black/African American people in the United States of America and throughout the Diaspora resolve to permanently revoke the Black man status of Orenthal James Simpson (AKA OJ) for the following reasons listed ...
White folks aren't gonna take him. Does that make OJ the first person in America who really does have post-racial identity?

05 December 2006

Cages

Via Digby, a New York Times article describing your tax dollars at work on alleged terrorist José Padilla.
Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla’s bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla’s legs. Next, his hands emerged through another hole to be manacled.

Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla’s cuffed hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next: noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors, marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall ...

What, is this guy Hannibal Lecter? Actually, if you think about it, in Silence of the Lambs Lecter was treated better than this. They moved him in that rolling cage thing ... but they did let him see and hear what was happening to him.

And recall, Lecter is a fictional character, practically a supervillain like Lex Luthor.

So is this guy as dangerous as imaginary super-psycho Hannibal Lecter?

In his affidavit, Mr. Patel said, “I was told by members of the brig staff that Mr. Padilla’s temperament was so docile and inactive that his behavior was like that of ‘a piece of furniture.’ ”
Understand, this is consistent with how Padilla has been treated for a long time.
In the brig, Mr. Padilla was denied access to counsel for 21 months. Andrew Patel, one of his lawyers, said his isolation was not only severe but compounded by material and sensory deprivations. In an affidavit filed Friday, he alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators; that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, “as part of an interrogation plan.”
Almost two years. Without a clock, a calendar, or sight of the sun. I cannot imagine how long it felt.
Now lawyers for Mr. Padilla, 36, suggest that he is unfit to stand trial. They argue that he has been so damaged by his interrogations and prolonged isolation that he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to assist in his own defense. His interrogations, they say, included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of “truth serums.”
....
“It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation,” [psychologist] Dr. Hegarty said in an affidavit for the defense.
The key symptom that marks him as too mentally ill to stand trial?
Mr. Padilla’s lawyers say they have had a difficult time persuading him that they are on his side.
Under the circumstances, that strikes me as an entirely sane response.

And hold on a second—notice that this is about him going to trial. Because, you see, José Padilla was arrested four and half years ago, and in that time he has not stood trial for any crime, much less been convicted of one.

A week and a half after 9/11, President Bush explained terrorists to us.

They hate our freedoms
Perhaps this is all a ploy to end the hate.

04 December 2006

Wheee!

BedJump.com

Completely work safe. I promise.

Last call

Last month I reported the closure of CBGB OMFUG, “the coolest rock 'n' roll club on Earth.” One of my vast network of correspondents was kind enough to pass me this picture of the club on closing day.

Closing day

RIP

03 December 2006

Stubbornness or resolve

There's a line of argument against withdrawl from Iraq that goes like this:
Whether or not you think the invasion was a good idea, or that things are “going well” in Iraq is irrelevant. What matters is that if we leave now, we will be giving the bad guys what they want. We cannot reward their actions in this way, as it will show others in the world that you can fight the US and win. Sending that message will only make us more vulnerable.
Via DeLong, I learn that Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber has laid the smackdown on this reasoning with a mix of common sense and game theory. It's an interesting post, but if you ask me, most of the work is already done when he just clearly restates the argument.

The idea is that the war is costing huge amounts of money and lives with no real prospect of success and a distinct danger that it is making things much worse. However, to do the logical thing would send the signal to our enemies that we will give up if fought to a pointless bloody standstill. Therefore, for strategic reasons, we must redouble our efforts, in order to send the signal to our enemies that we will fight implacably and mindlessly in any battle we happen to get into, forever, in order to dissuade them from attacking us in the first place.
As I've said before, I believe that this is a mis-learned lesson from the Vietnam war, and President Bush himself has said that he he believes this faulty reasoning.

02 December 2006

This meme will not die

It had to happen. Snakes on a Plane: The Roleplaying Game of Personal Discovery, Dire Combat, and Motherf&*%ing Snakes.
Distribute 25 points among these stats; minimum of 1, maximum of 9.

In addition, your character has a Story. This is a bit of background explaining what you're doing on this plane. This should be no more than one sentence. It cannot use words that you'd find in an SAT vocabulary prep book or in a Proust novel.
....
Whenever you're asked to test a stat, roll a number of six-sided dice equal to that stat's rank. Every die that comes up 5 or 6 is a success. Every die that comes up 1 is a snake.

If you get more snakes than successes, you are attacked by a snake (see Motherfucking Snakes, below).

Not only wittily written, but a clever piece of game design.

01 December 2006

Zagmuk

Chris Noessel reports that he's planning on celebrating Zagmuk instead of Christmas this year.

I was doing a little research on Zagmuk and how it might be celebrated. Here's the skinny. First, a recounting. Then, at the end, a wrap up of the important bits that might make it into some modern celebration.

Zagmuk was the 12-day Mesopotamian winter solstice festival. It's the first winter solstice festival that humans have recorded in history. It might have borrowed a lot from Egypt. Many of its traditions will strike the modern observer as a little wacky, but others are strangely familiar, discernible within some of the West's oldest and most revered celebrations such as Yule, New Years Day, Easter, and Carnevale.

Online accounts of this festival are all over the map. I've done some necessary paring down and then retold it with a certain degree of flippancy, trying to get the spirit of the thing. If you want to get all academic about it, this is not the place.

The story goes like this. Marduk, the god of growing things, had (just like last year) gotten himself imprisoned in the underworld, and in his absence the gods of chaos were slowly devouring the sun. This “explains” why the days were getting shorter after the vernal equinox and why this festival was particularly important. It was about continuing to exist. To make sure the sun would come back and give life to the growing things, Babylon didn't just lament and hope, they did something about it.

Days 1-4

Wail for Marduk, he's captured in the underworld. Wail for the King, he's going to die. Get yourselves ready. Sacrifice and atone.

Day 5

Get ready for the gods, who are coming tomorrow. Leave out some sacrifices for them. Doll the place up.

Prep the King: Smack him around a bit, take away his power, and make him swear that he's been doing his job as best he can, with his priorities in the right place. Forgive him his past sins, and by extension, his subjects, i.e. everyone.

Day 6

At this point it becomes useful to distinguish what's happening in the mythical realm, and what's happening on Earth.

Here comes the son: Nabu, Marduk's son, and the rest of the gods arrive to free Marduk.

Pull the statues of the gods out of their own temples. In a parade (in Babylon they carried them across a river in barges first) move them into the single, festival temple.

Day 7

Nabu leads the gods down to the underworld where they free Marduk from captivity in a big fight.

Compete amongst yourselves for the fun of it.

Day 8

The gods all give Marduk their powers, whence he becomes this giant Voltron-esque über god, fit to fight the good fight and bring back the light.

Put the gods in order of preference. Hold silent reverence for the awesome kewl powerz that Marduk has right now. We all need to be together in this. Withhold all enmity amongst yourselves. Don't fight.

At one time in the evolution of this thing, the priests would kill the king so that his soul might help in the fight. This was a good way to enforce term-limits and ensure the power of the theocracy, but made the king job a lot less appealing. Plus, they kept losing good kings. So, sometime later they would instead free a prisoner at the beginning of the festival and name him king for the festival, and then kill him as a proxy, after which they would reinstate the real king.

Day 9 (The actual solstice)

The juiced-up Marduk fights his Boss Fight against the monsters of chaos. He wins.

Early on, parade behind the Marduk statue until he's set in the feasting temple. This precession was the earthly representation of the fight, with stations for various acts that represented what was happening. Do this right, or it'll bode poorly for the fight and the coming year.

Day 10

Marduk feasts and parties with the gods, celebrating his victory. Marduk gets it on with his wife.

People feast and party with each other, celebrating his victory. The king has sex with a priestess. Copulation ensues.

Day 11

The gods pow-wow, to determine the city's destiny in the upcoming year. They consider in their decision how well the city helped the fight.

Perform augries and divinations, see if you can peek into their decisions.

Day 12

The gods, their business done, go to their homes and return to doing their god things.

The statues are returned to their own temples. Life returns to the everyday.


Some online sources cite Zagmuk as the source of gift-giving and caroling, but in reading the sourciest things I can find, this wasn't actually in there. Maybe in one of its later incarnations?

How would this play out in modern practice? I don't know. We don't really believe that the sun is being devoured by the monsters of chaos anymore (did they ever, really?) but it certainly can be an opportunity for review and personal renewal. Here's the core of this thing as I see it:

  • Suspend the rules
  • Review the past year, identify what needs work
  • Establish priorities and goals for the next
  • Enjoy: Games, Food, Drink, Company, Sex, and Divination
  • Reinstate the rules

Without getting too far into oppressive structure and symbolism, you could loosely contain these things in the season. Decorations of Mesopotamian winter would set aside the time as special. Rearranging the furniture would also help in a Feng-shui-ey way, too. If you started on Dec 22 then day 5 falls on Christmas, and you can give gifts. In between there should be plenty of game playing, tasty meals, and if not sex, some fun porn with quality alone time. New Years would fall on the day of combat and you can do the traditional review and resolutions, and be comfortable in the larger cultural goings-on. I don't know how to celebrate and “kill the king.” Also, there should be Zagmuk carols. On January 3 you put the furniture back and take down the decorations.

I know some pagans who celebrate Christmas night with sort of syncretic seder where they mark the coming transition from the Piscean Age to the Aquarian Age by eating fish. I used to think this was the weirdest winter holiday plan I knew.

No longer.